“It’s a bit like being on trial, you know, playing in Iceland. It’s like…what do they think?”
—Sigur Rós vocalist Jón Þór (Jónsi) Birgisson at the start of Heima
It’s impossible to think that the members of Sigur Rós were expecting, even in their wildest dreams, the sort of acclaim and worldwide recognition that greeted them when they made Ágætis byrjun their first release to see shores beyond those of Iceland. Critics fawned, audiences gasped, and people actually bought the thing, despite the fact that not a word of it was in English. World tours followed, Sigur Rós became the sort of wonderful little “secret” that everybody seemed to know about, and each of their subsequent album releases became something of an event, as those under the Ice/Hopelandic spell that this wondrous band oh-so-consistently weaves constantly begged for more.
Audiences weaned on Behind the Music, E! True Hollywood Story, and any number of celebrity-baiting reality TV shows know how this story usually ends. Even so, throughout the new DVD release Heima, it’s easy to see that fame is a bewildering beast to a band like Sigur Rós. When keyboardist (among other -ists) Kjartan Sveinsson deigns to talk about the experiences and “perks” that sudden worldwide recognition brought, he can barely squeeze out the word “money”. Obviously, that’s never what making music was about for this bunch. To see any of them talk about the tremendous, worldwide response to their music, they look uncomfortable, as if they’d rather be doing anything else. Yet, when any of them are talking about their native Iceland, you see the sort of smile and warmth usually reserved for hot chocolate and flannel pajamas emanating from suddenly radiant visages.
Heima, which translateds to “At Home”, is a love letter to that homeland that this band so obviously loves. Iceland comes off as consistently beautiful in so many ways throughout Heima. At one point you’ll see a sped-up take of clouds bouncing off shoreline mountains. At another you’ll see the band playing in the quiet of a one-road village that appears all but abandoned. In another spot you’ll see children, grandmothers, and everyone in between taking in a lovely performance (with what looks like a full-on string section) in a space that looks like it holds maybe 100 people.
None of those people are crazed fanboys. They’re family types, the elders a little weathered, the young perfectly innocent, all of them looking on, quietly, intently. They’re so taken in by the music, in fact, that you’d swear they were bored were their gazes not so piercing, so unmoving.
The peace that such images portray doesn’t last forever. Eventually, we arrive at a setting that looks in one way like an outdoor festival, and in another like somebody’s backyard. It starts serene, as people arrive and set up to the sounds of more of the peaceful music that has dominated the DVD to this point. Onlookers show up with family, eat their lunches, look vaguely disinterested yet happy to be there, and the whole thing fits right in. Even as the band starts playing on a stage far more elaborate than most of those we’ve seen to this point (but still stripped down when compared to, say, your average arena or stadium show), it feels as though they are thanking the crowd for coming to see them by gently massaging and hugging their eardrums.
As the band plays, the night falls, and with the nightfall comes an increasing urgency, an intensity not seen to this point. All of it culminates in a bit of sweeping catharsis, in the form of ()‘s incredible, untitled eighth track. Suddenly there is a ferocity to the band’s music, the repetition of the song no longer lulling you into a trance as much as it is pummeling you over the head. And suddenly, from amidst all of those families, all of those people of all ages, come the young, the teenagers, the ones who can appreciate the noise, the ones who have finally been given what they have been waiting for. You see them with their own senses of wonder, as Sigur Rós has finally deigned it appropriate to speak not to their island nation as a whole, but to their primary audience specifically. The appreciation to be found in that audience is palpable.
There are no “bonus features” to speak of unless you count the second disc, which contains 25 full-length songs worth of live Sigur Rós goodness. Between that and the music-inflected documentary that is the first disc, it’s more than enough of the band to satiate even the most hardcore fan.
In fact, the sheer quantity of material on display in Heima points directly at the release’s greatest downfall: it doesn’t necessarily reward active viewing, unless you live and breathe for the band. The performances are obviously heartfelt but largely relaxed, quiet affairs (save for that one stretch of five minutes or so at the end), and as such, they do not make for gripping viewing. The band is usually too absorbed by itself to actively engage its audience, and the audience is spending most of its time sitting still and taking things in. The brief bits of interviews, anecdotes, and scenes featuring the landscape of Iceland break things up a bit, but even they don’t actively engage the viewer so much as they simply change things up a bit. The languid pace of the DVD is obviously intentional, but it’s a pace that will simply lose a good portion of its audience before the film ends.
That said, Heima will still certainly be a treat for fans of the band, and even those who aren’t familiar with Sigur Rós may find much in it to love, sparking new interest where there wasn’t any. Play it in the background or simply give in to its slowly-building majesty, perhaps allowing yourself the liberty to fall asleep as it plays, and it’s easy to love. Just don’t go in expecting fireworks, and you’ll be fine.